[Note: If you’re not familiar with games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the terminology in this post will likely make no sense.]
This weekend I took my turn as game-master for the second duty station in our Night Witches campaign. Published by Bully Pulpit Games and Powered by the Apocalypse, Night Witches is a role-playing game about the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. (Edmund’s notes on the campaign are here.) By default, it assumes that the GM duties will rotate every time the regiment switches duty station or when someone’s player character is taken out of the action by events, injuries, or death.
I was willing to take my turn despite my current work load because I know that there was pretty much no preparation involved, and because I’ve run other PbtA games. To be honest, the Apocalypse-based games are not that different from the way I approach GMing in general, except that its techniques are codified and integrated into the mechanics, whereas I just use them free-form. I’m referring, in particular to idea of not planning where the action will go but letting it unfold by itself, generated by the PCs’ actions and the dice rolls.
In my typical games, this involves focusing the story on the consequences of the players’ choices, a logical if-then-else loop iterating constantly. In PbtA games, this is anchored mechanically by the results of certain moves triggering other moves; Vincent Baker called this, in his original Apocalypse World, the “Moves Snowball.” Night Witches is designed to have a lot of that snowballing, especially with the night (bombing mission) moves. Once a PbtA game starts snowballing, you can just let it roll down to its logical conclusion, which makes the GM’s job easy.
In our first episode at the training duty station, Engels Aerodrome, we rolled plenty of middling or low dice results which kept us snowballing. But at Trud Gornyaka, the dice rolled magnificently for the first two missions, which unfolded in textbook fashion (flight manual kind of textbook, not GMing!) The snowball simply wouldn’t start rolling because the airwomen succeeded at every piloting and navigation roll.
But at least, they had lower dice rolls during the day, which got me a chance to start brewing a conflict between Maryam and Sveta on the one hand, and the Deputy Politruk on the other. We wanted to go through a third mission during the episode so we could be halfway through the stay at this duty station, and we wanted it to be one of the two missions for Trud Gornyaka which provide advancement for the PCs.
To shake things loose and provide some adversity, I use the Deputy Politruk’s enmity and the poor supply situation described as reigning at Trud Gornyaka to send the Section out during daytime to fetch supplies, thus limiting their opportunities to gather mission points, forcing them to deal with lack of sleep and German flights, and generally putting the airwomen on the defensive a bit.
Sure enough, the last mission (with only one point in the mission pool!) was a nail biter. As soon as they fell short due to lack of mission points, the snowball started. In the end, all three planes that had gone out on that mission were totalled, three NPC airwomen were killed, and all three PCs (Maryam, Sveta, and Elena) were wounded. They earned their advancement, and the undying resentment of the Deputy Politruk…
The thing that I found interesting as a GM is that despite the mechanical elements favouring the moves snowball, I still had to nudge it along (like a real GM and stuff.) It suddenly felt a little arbitrary to make a hard move without being specifically directed! Yet it was in fact relying on the results of (disastrous) daytime moves, so it was in the spirit of the game. I had no guidelines for how to treat daytime flying, which moves to use. Since they didn’t have any bombs to drop during the supply run, I had them roll Tempt Fate to escape the German patrols.
The conclusion from all this is that even with the built-in moves snowball, the GM has to remain mindful of the fiction, of its cause-and-consequence flow, in order to provide sufficient challenge to make the game fun for the players.